What survives?

Even though death is the end of our individual existence, something of us can survive our death. The impact we have on the world and other people while we are alive can continue to have an impact after we are gone.

How?

  1. After our bodies break down, our atoms will go on to form new things
  2. Our genes can live on in our children and other descendants if we have them
  3. Our actions, thoughts, and ideas can live on in the memories of others
  4. Our works may survive us: this could include the words we have written, things we have created, or influences on society that we contributed to

Atoms

In Making a Home in this World: Humanism and Architecture, Ken Worpole writes:

‘Britain is now beginning to lead the world in ‘natural’ burial… using biodegradable coffins or shrouds, marked only by temporary memorials which themselves will return to the earth, leaving behind unadorned ‘natural’ woodland or landscape.’

He emphasises the significant cultural shift involved in this practice:

‘A growing number of people are choosing to leave behind no memorial, and are opting to disappear entirely from the historical record.’

Worpole highlights the fact that in Britain, nearly half of all cremated remains are taken away by family or friends for private act of disposal, a practice that is forbidden in many countries.

This breaking with tradition, the freedom to create a personal farewell, and the recognition of our oneness with nature all represent a very humanist approach to death. The chemical elements inside us, created long ago inside the stars, will go on to form new things once we are gone.

‘Nature’s Law is that all things change and turn, and pass away, so that in due order different things may come to be.’

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

Genes

I am the family face;
Flesh perishes, I live on,
Projecting trait and trace
Through time to times anon,
And leaping from place to place
Over oblivion.

Thomas Hardy, Moments of Vision and Miscellaneous Verses

Biology also allows something of us to continue. Our traits and habits can be passed on to our descendants. This may not console everyone, for perhaps this does not feel like our own survival. However, once these features take form in the character of new persons, few do not feel that their children’s survival is now more important than their own. Why should this cycle not be viewed as positive? Opportunities for life are limited. Perhaps we should see the value in making space for others.

Ideas, actions, works

‘I fall asleep in the full and certain hope
That my slumber shall not be broken;
And that, though I be all-forgetting,
Yet shall I not be all-forgotten,
But continue that life in the thoughts and deeds of those I loved.’

Samuel Butler (1835-1902), Erewhon

Every idea we share, every impact we have on the people around us and the world we live in, can continue to have significance after we are gone. This capacity to transfer ideas between minds emphasises our collaborative nature as a species and the potential an individual can have on human history. Even if the impact is small, it may still be significant to some. It allows an opportunity for the way we live to continue to be meaningful after we are gone.

The humanist philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote about this interconnectedness of humanity:

‘An individual human existence should be like a river-
Small at first, narrowly contained within its banks,
and rushing passionately past boulders and over waterfalls.
Gradually the river grows wider, the banks recede, the waters flow more quietly, and-
in the end- without any visible break, they become merged in the sea,
and painlessly lose their individual being
The man or woman who in old age, can see his or her life in this way,
will not suffer from the fear of death,
since the things they care for will continue.’

Bertrand Russell (1872 – 1970), How to Grow Old

Russell expresses the humanist recognition that although we are individuals, we are part of something bigger. Although it does not guarantee it, an awareness of this fact can bring us a sense of comfort when we consider the end of our own existence.

For many humanists, then, this capacity for our impact to outlive us means we should consider carefully how we choose to live our lives. Our words and deeds can continue to have an impact after we are gone. Our lives can continue to be meaningful to others.

Question: How might the recognition that something of us survives our deaths affect how we live?

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This article is from the free online course:

Introducing Humanism: Non-religious Approaches to Life

Humanists UK